Student Voice, Teaching Stories

A PASSion for Active Learning

With Christmas over, I’ve been looking over my timetable to see what the next teaching block has in store for me, and there’s now a conspicuous absence on a Tuesday afternoon. Until now, I’ve spent my time after lunch on a Tuesday with a friend scouring Blackboard, my fantastically unhelpful notes, and her slightly more helpful notes to try to plan an hour’s worth of interesting and useful activities for somewhere between one and seven 2nd year Biology students. That’s not just out of the kindness of my heart – alongside being a BILT student fellow, I’ve been moonlighting (or maybe it’s more accurate to say twilighting) as a PASS leader.

If you’re not aware what PASS is, it stands for Peer Assisted Study Sessions. It’s an initiative run for about 24 subjects in the university that provides student-run sessions for students to come and work on study skills, ask questions, get support with uni work and life and meet other people on their course. PASS is highly flexible, and changes to meet the needs of the students, but there are some key concepts:

  • It doesn’t replace teaching
  • It’s collaborative
  • It’s fun
  • It’s a partnership
  • It’s inclusive

PASS is definitely not more teaching for students. I’m barely qualified to be a student, let alone a lecturer, so I’m not there to give a seminar or disseminate knowledge. It’s about facilitating students to take charge of their own learning. But they don’t have to go it alone (the clue’s in the PA part of PASS). Students work as a team, helping each other by sharing knowledge and skills, in an engaging, enjoyable (I hope!) way. And more importantly, in the way they want – every part of the session: the plan, the content, the activities, is flexible to respond to what the students are getting the most from. There’s no point running an essay planning workshop when they’ve all got a coding assignment due in the next few days. There’s also no point running sessions that aren’t inclusive. By making sure feedback is asked for and heard, PASS can be made useful and enjoyable for everyone who attends. 

Sounds a lot like active, collaborative learning? With one key exception – PASS doesn’t replace teaching. It shouldn’t, either, it’s really great as an augmentation to the way students study already, and having a risk-free space where students can ask questions they might not be comfortable asking academics is very important. But, I think other forms of active, collaborative learning should start to replace teaching. 

Not all of it, certainly, and in many cases across the university, it already has. But it’s really important that lecture heavy, content loaded subjects think about what they can change up. Being a PASS leader really highlighted to me the failings of lecture-centric teaching and what’s great about active, collaborative learning. 

It’s not even been a year since I passed my exams on the content we were giving PASS sessions on, and I really struggled to remember it. “Rings a bell, definitely sounds like genetics” isn’t quite the same as having a deep understanding of the content, but in a lot of cases it was all I could muster up. And yet, an often used defence of the more traditional teaching style is that university needs to create disciplinary experts. I wouldn’t say I’m a disciplinary expert, but an expert on remembering content long enough to regurgitate it in an exam where I’m separated from my (admittedly slightly poorly written) notes. 

Conversely, the content we did go over in PASS sessions feels much more firmly cemented in my mind now. I had to understand it if I was going to design activities based on it, and answering questions as well as hearing the perspectives and thoughts of other students really pushed and challenged that understanding. 

There’s technically no barrier to creating exciting revision activities to work on in study groups as students ourselves. But when you’ve got 90 lectures worth of content to commit to memory (with extra reading, of course) and 6 exams looming, you’re going to stick to what works to pass the exam, even if that’s not the best learning experience. 

And there’s something else really important that I feel I’ve not mentioned enough, which is the fun element of more active and collaborative activities. All of the student fellows did a podcast recently, and we talked about how we don’t seem to focus on joy in learning nearly enough. I’m sure part of the reason my knowledge of molecular genetics has flown from my mind with such alarming speed is because of the unpleasant association with stress, the signature ASS Library smell of sweat and energy drinks (with a hint of desperation), and never-ending lines of garish notes, highlighted in every colour imaginable

As part of my work as a student fellow, I’m developing a quick start guide to making teaching more active and collaborative. But while that’s still in the works, check out the Digital Education Office’s resources, which includes case studies from throughout the Uni of how digital tools can support active and collaborative learning.

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow

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